There is an interesting phenomenon that happens in the world of professional childbirth work that I like to think of as the Big Sister Effect. It’s a natural thing that happens inside us as humans when people we care about experience difficult things and something inside us rises up and wants to defend and protect them. This is actually a physiological and evolutionary response that is good for the human race, and yet, it can get us into a world of hurt. Many feel this kind of emotional attachment is unwarranted in professional doula work, and I have a different view of it.
The Benefits and Risks of Unbiased Support
As a professional doula and childbirth educator, I have a responsibility to provide factual, unbiased support and information to my clients. Big Sisters have an opinion: “Nobody talks to MY little sister that way. If you wanna pick on her, you’re going to have to deal with ME!” As a professional, I am enlisted to provide education and coaching to help people speak and advocate for themselves, not to speak on their behalf. So, if I have an opinion, I lose my professionalism; however, if I am professionally unbiased to the point of being disconnected from my clients, I am losing out on a powerful opportunity to create a bridge that enables my clients to achieve the truly empowering and satisfying experience parenthood can be.
To be or not to be? It’s complicated…
As a birth and postpartum doula and childbirth educator, I come alongside women who are experiencing one of the most vulnerable experiences of their lives, if not the most vulnerable. Parenthood is something we have all experienced through the eyes of our own childhood, and something most of us will experience as adults with our own children. We all carry with us positive and negative experiences, as well as a determination to be or not to be like our own parents. While we all have experience with this thing called parenthood, few of us receive much proper instruction or education on how to do it well, or even have an understanding of what "well" means to us individually. The very nature of the work we come into can be a very dark place for many of our clients, at least at some level, which means our work is pretty complicated. It is my experience that meaningful psychological and emotional connections with our clients is the cornerstone of what we do, and is something I teach on quite extensively. The choice to feel or not to feel emotionally connected with our clients in those moments brings a risk of attachment, which can be detrimental to our cause of support as well as to our own emotional well-being moving forward.
The Difference between Emotionalism and Vulnerability
If our clients bring with them their own stories and backgrounds, hopes and dreams, hurts and fears, then so do we. This is a truth that simply cannot be overlooked. We have a choice to shut down our emotions so we can provide 100% neutral, unbiased assistance, or we can choose to allow our emotions and authentic selves to accompany us to each assignment as a tool that enables us to create bonds of connection and trust with our clients. Emotionalism is selfish and takes. Vulnerability is self-less and gives.
Emotionalism says, “I want my client to have the kind of birth she wants so badly that I’m willing to do anything it takes to ensure it for her, even if it means sacrificing my well-being.” Vulnerability says, “I am willing to open up my heart and share my story if it means making sure my client doesn’t feel alone in her pain, so she knows I will be with her each step of the way as she navigates her path.”
Emotionalism says, “Get on my back, I’ll carry you.” Vulnerability says, “Hold my hand and we’ll get through this together.”
Vulnerability can be scary if it is perceived as hopeless or helpless, but it can be powerful if it is perceived as a doorway to empowerment, ownership and victory. The greatest things in life rarely come without some kind of struggle, and this is absolutely true for pregnancy, childbirth and parenthood. Being sympathetic of someone in a state of vulnerability does not build a bridge. Sympathy allows the vulnerable person to feel alone and abandoned. Sympathy does not require an emotional or vulnerable response from the other person. You can throw money at someone or even assist and support them without making any meaningful impact in his or her life. Empathy, on the other hand, requires the responding party to display a matching measure of vulnerability that creates a bridge of trust. That bond is the very thing makes a way for an emotional connection that is life-giving, rather than soul-sucking.
Professional vulnerability researcher, author and speaker, Brené Brown, Ph.D., shares about the connection between owning our stories and how they create connection in her blog post titled Our Own History - Change the Story. While the topic revolves around racism, I believe the message is relevant here.
"Owning our stories is standing in our truth. It’s transformative in our personal and professional lives AND it’s also critical in our community lives. But we don’t think about history as our collective story.
"Until we find a way to own our collective stories around racism in this country, our history and the stories of pain will own us." (Brown, 2015)
Brown beautifully illustrates her definition of empathy in this video:
I think as professional childbirth workers we often want to protect ourselves from hurting or protect our clients from the unintentional influence of our opinions. What we often do inadvertently is prevent ourselves from feeling. The real truth is, we can't prevent hurt in our lives or anyone else's. It's not the act of feeling itself that is scary; it's hurt. If we are intentional and wise, we can allow ourselves to feel while also steering clear of unhealthy emotional attachment or codependency and thus preserve our own well-being as well as that of our clients.
Baggage and Badges
Some people see it as a badge of honor to carry another person’s emotional baggage and unfortunately this is pervasive in the professional childbirth support industry, but this is not a healthy way to conduct life or business. If I’m operating out of emotionalism, I run the risk of being emotionally vested in the outcome of my client’s birth experience, and left supremely let down and guilt-filled if things do not turn out as intended. This kind of codependency is not healthy, nor is it professional. My job as a childbirth professional is not to become a martyr for my clients; it is to be a mentor instead. When we take the time to invest in our own personal growth and mental and spiritual well-being, we gain the kind of maturity that allows us to be emotionally present with our clients, without being emotionally vested in their experience. We are able to bring our experiences and hearts to the table in a way that provides security and trust in our professional relationship without opening ourselves up to be hurt or taken advantage of. This ultimately means we have to be at an emotional level personally where we can accept our own stories of pain and pleasure as integral pieces of our whole self. If we cannot connect with our own stories, and thus refuse to connect with the stories of our clients, we will miss out on the very humanness that fuels the work we do.
Emotional Connection is the very work we do
In her article for the August 2011 issue of Midwifery titled After praise and encouragement: Emotional support strategies used by birth doulas in the USA and Canada, author Amy Gilliland, Ph.D., CD(DONA) (Student) explores the aspect of emotional support employed by professional doulas. She shares (emphasis mine):
"Although doulas may become experts in comfort measures and maternal positioning to enhance fetal descent during labour, their primary concern is for the mother's emotional well-being.
"Emotional support for labouring mothers is considered one of the main functions of birth doulas.
"As emotional support is a process of giving and receiving, it was important for both mothers and doulas to be informants. Their shared ideas, feelings and concerns illustrate the deeper meanings and subtle nuances of effective emotional support.
"[The methods] were more complex because they require experience at numerous births, reflection, a clear understanding of the mother's needs, and ultimately a deepening level of emotional intelligence and skill." (Gilliland, 2011)
Many of us come into the work of doula support because we are attracted to the positive outcomes outcomes of satisfied mothers who feel capable and empowered as they journey through childbirth and parenting, but rarely do we bring with us the psychological and emotional equipment required to tackle the emotional duties placed upon us with grace, efficacy and personal safety.
Professionalism and Duty
Doulas are professionals and for a long time have not been viewed as such, but if we want to elevate the role of our profession by discounting the need for emotional connection, then all we have are jobs. The very last thing I want my clients to think is that I'm just showing up for my shift. Jobs don’t require heart. Jobs require a duty, a time clock and a paycheck. I don’t have a job. I have a profession that matters to me and matters to the people who trust me to come into the intimate and vulnerable space in their life where they need the utmost encouragement and empowerment. My clients are much more than paychecks. They are not robots; they are humans, and as such I must meet them with a human response rather than a heartless one. If that means I have to feel things that are at times uncomfortable, or that I have to get a little dirty, I am willing to do that. I am confident in my ability to clean up and get care for my wounds when they occur, and each experience equips me that much more for the tasks ahead.
Written by Missy David, the Honeybee Mama
Brown, B. (2015). Own our history. Change the story. - Brené Brown. Retrieved February 05, 2016, from http://brenebrown.com/2015/06/18/own-our-history-change-the-story/
Gilliland, A. L. (2011). After praise and encouragement: Emotional support strategies used by birth doulas in the USA and Canada. Midwifery, 27(4), 525-531.